There hadn’t been anyone there. At least there hadn’t been anyone there when I looked out the window as the coach pulled to the side of the road and slowed to a stop. There hadn’t been anyone there, as all 30 of us got off to stretch our legs. But suddenly people began to emerge from the barren landscape. At first, it was a young boy, and then a couple of other children. One or two adults came into view. Soon the whole community was there. Fires were laid. Tea was made. Various goods for sale were displayed on blankets spread out on the ground. As we drank our tea, we were invited to buy what was being offered for sale. If I remember correctly, I did but something, but now can’t remember what it was.
I was in the wilderness. It was the fall of 1998 and I had gone with a group of pilgrims from St. George’s College, Jerusalem, to Egypt. We had spent a few days in Cairo, and then made our way to St. Antony’s Monastery, the home of a thriving community of Coptic monks located in the place where monasticism began with St. Antony. We where now in the Sinai on our way to St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the mountain where tradition tells us that Moses encountered the Burning Bush, and then later received the Ten Commandments, and where Elijah had heard the still small voice and knew it to be God.
Just as you would imagine, the landscape was barren and harsh, especially when the sun was at its height. Rocky outcrops seemed to be everywhere, and while there was evidence of plant life, it seemed mostly to be scrub, not much good for anything. But somehow, somewhere, this community of people seemed to make a living, tending their flocks, and no doubt doing what they were doing that day when I met them: appearing out of no where to offer strangers tea, and an opportunity to buy a few souvenirs. Clearly, they lived somewhere, but there was no evidence of village, or camp. There was certainly no sign of water.
Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.
Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth,” a loaded metaphor which his listeners would have understood. In Jesus’ day, it was not unusual for guests sitting at table to be ranked in relationship to the saltcellar. The host and the distinguished guests sat at the head of the table, “above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, farthest from the host, were of less or little consequence. And so the expression “sharing the salt” came to be a way for Christians to refer to table fellowship. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.
Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, from which comes the Roman word sal for these salubrious crystals. The Roman goddess of health was named Salus. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious salt crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay – consisting in part of salt – came to be known as his salarium, from which we derive the English word “salary.” A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.[i]
Salt was involved in Israel’s covenants with God, with grain offerings, and in the incense used in purification sacrifices to give flavor to the “food of God.”[ii] Newborn babies were rubbed with salt, from which has come the Christian practice of adding a few grains of salt to baptismal water.3 Over the years salt has been a commodity for exchange, so valuable in some places that in the sub-Sahara in the centuries following Jesus’ life, merchants routinely traded salt sometimes ounce-for-ounce for gold. Salt: something of almost inestimable worth, but not because it is eaten by itself. Salt is not food. Salt is added to food to bring out the fullness of their flavor. Salt gives wholeness. Salt has its own taste, yet it loses itself in transforming the food that it seasons. It becomes one with that to which it is added, and both salt and the food are transformed.[iii]
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he asks what was meant to be a rhetorical question: “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” For some of us, Jesus’ question may be more literal and rhetorical, you feel spent or spilled and you’ve lost track of some of your inestimable essence as salt. How can your saltiness be restored? There is a biological principle called homeostasis, that we crave what we actually need, that we crave the food that has the nutrients that our bodies need. What does your soul crave?
- What would bring light to your eyes to counter the darkness?
- What would bring melody and harmony to your soul to counter the cacophony of noise that ring in your ears?
- What would bring a lilt to your gait that would counter the crushing toil others ask you to carry or stomach?
- What would be like salt, like the perfect seasoning, to bring zeal to your heart to counter the tyranny of urgent demands that are incessant?
- What are you craving?
- To use the image of a salt shaker, what would be the equivalent of the rice in the salt shaker to absorb what would otherwise cause the salt to get stuck and cease to flow?
Those things are worth attending to for you to savor and be grateful for your gift of life. Jesus said that “you are salt,” something which is of inestimable worth. You are salt, created to give a distinctive flavor to life, you like none other. By your presence, your witness, your gifts, you help others “taste and see that the Lord is good,” the language of the Psalms.
[iv]To use a pun, I’m saying don’t just flavor, but savor who you are. You are the salt of the earth.
[i]Insight about salt in the Roman world very liberally drawn from “A Brief History of Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982; p. 68.
[ii]Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5.
[iii]Salt also had a practical and symbolic function of purifying, suggested, for example, in the memory of Elisha’s making the “foul water” at Jericho wholesome by use of salt (II Kings 2:19-22); Exodus 30:35; See Leviticus 21: 6, 8, 17, 22; Ezekiel 16:4. See “Salt” in The Dictionary of Biblical Theology, by Xavier Leon-Dufour.